Ed Stewart is a first year M.Div student at the Pacific School of Religion who recently returned from this Immersion course in Middle East: Holy Places and Displacement.
Having returned from Israel and Palestine, I’ve had time to decompress a bit and reflect on the past two weeks. The journey with my PSR colleagues was challenging and thought-provoking, and ultimately a rewarding experience. But now that I’m back home, I’m struck by how very militarized the Holy Land is, and how this fact colors my memories of the religious sites we visited.
The juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane was readily apparent nearly everywhere we went. In Bethlehem the Church of the Nativity is the featured attraction, but the more imposing structure is the nearby “security barrier” that snakes across town, separating Palestinian communities from Israeli settler neighborhoods. Along the Jordan River near where Jesus was baptized are stations of Israeli and Jordanian soldiers, who stare at each other uneasily across the narrow waterway dividing Jordan from the occupied West Bank. At the Western Wall of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, the most sacred site in Judaism, even the most devout worshipper would find it hard to ignore the nearby contingent of Israeli troops with their machine guns at the ready.
We spent the last week of our immersion in Jerusalem, which the Knesset has declared the eternal and undivided capital of Israel. Nevertheless, the city reminded me of the divided city of Berlin before the fall of the Wall. The West Bank security barrier (or separation wall, depending on which side of it you happen to be standing) winds its way though neighborhoods on a seemingly random course. But look more closely and you notice the difference in the the condition of housing and infrastructure on one side of the wall versus the other. Even the ever-present police vehicles look different: West Jerusalem is patrolled by police cars; East Jerusalem by jeeps.
Security checkpoints and constantly-patrolled borders seem to be of paramount importance in this corner of the world. Yet it is unclear to me — as an outsider — what has been achieved. Despite all the efforts to maintain an enforced separation between these two peoples, my sense is that Palestinians and Israelis are locked in a mutually-suffocating embrace. Palestinians resent the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and Israelis are frightened of the Palestinian resistance to this very occupation. For the last 50 years neither side has been able to let go of its fear and loathing, or to alter the prism through which they view each other. And so the conflict continues.